The Price of Civilisation, Then and Now
“Taxes are what we pay for civilized society” said Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes of the United States Supreme Court. It is also what we pay for being disciples of Jesus Christ. Starting with Jesus Himself, the Christian faith commands us to pay all taxes levied by secular governments and to not evade them by such tricks as underreporting the value of a commercial transaction or of property, accepting cash in order to report a lesser monetary amount that would change hands, or inventing fictitious deductions from income.
Biblical to pay taxes
The first injunction to pay secular taxes appears in Matthew 22:17-21, Mark 12:14-17 and Luke 20:22-25, where the Pharisees asked Jesus “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Christ pointed to a coin which bore the portrait and inscription of Caesar, the Roman head of state, and replied with “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”. In other words, give back to the creator of secular money their due portion of it, whether that person is the Roman emperor or Queen Elizabeth as represented by the New Zealand authorities. In Matthew 17:27 Jesus instructed Peter to pay the Jewish Temple poll tax as well.
A little later, but still in Bible times, the Apostle Paul commanded:
Pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another.Romans 13:6-8
The earliest generations of Christians interpreted this literally, not “spiritually”. Their witness is valuable to us today because they lived in an era when the oral teachings and Bible interpretations of Jesus and the apostles were still fresh in Christian memories and they remembered the sense and nuances in which the above words were written. These ancient post-biblical authors also operated in the same context and culture as the New Testament authors and their first hearers and readers, and shared their presuppositions and mental world, and thus more fully disclose the interpretations and lessons that the Biblical authors intended their first audience to draw from the New Testament.
Justin, a martyr for the Faith at government hands around AD165, composed a description of Christian teachings for the Roman emperor. Where “we” means Christians, Justin wrote: “everywhere we, more readily than all men, endeavour to pay to those appointed by you the taxes both ordinary and extraordinary, as we have been taught by Him”. Justin then summarised Matthew 22:17-21, and continued: “to God alone we render worship, but in other things we gladly serve you, acknowledging you as kings and rulers of men” (1 Apology 17).
In AD 180 another Christian martyr also described Christian practices and attitudes towards the state. He said Christians honour Caesar as Caesar and, when they buy anything they always pay the sales tax out of a religious duty (Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs).
Theophilus was pastor of Antioch in Syria in the third quarter of the second century. Writing of Christians’ relations with secular government, he narrated that “the divine word” instructs Christians to “lead a quiet and peaceable life. And it teaches us to render all things to all, honour to whom honour, fear to whom fear, tribute to whom tribute; to owe no one anything but to love all” (To Autolycus 3.14).
Origen was the most influential Bible scholar, teacher, and preacher of his own day and for centuries to come, so much so that he was consulted by pastors throughout the eastern Mediterranean. In his Sermons on Luke 23:6 (about AD 233) he told his audience “to pay what is due to other people: tribute to whom tribute is due, taxes to whom taxes, and honour to whom honour”. At 39.4 he indicated that no Christian of his day disagreed that Christians must pay taxes to the Roman government.
A year or two later, in discussing “forgive us our debts” in the Lord’s Prayer, Origen repeated Romans 13:7-8 and added that taxes to whom taxes, revenue to whom revenue, etc. are debts due to other people because Christians have a responsibility to render them, just as we are also to render “gentle speech” and other kinds of Christian deeds and dispositions (On Prayer 28:1).
Origen preached that taxes as taxes, revenue as revenue, etc., are among duties that Christians must render to the other people, just like duties to parents as parents, sons as sons, siblings as siblings, clergy as clergy, church elders as church elders, deacons as deacons, and laypeople as laypeople (Sermons on Jeremiah 14.4.1). To Origen, payment of government levies was on a par with other conduct we associate with the Christian life, and just as binding and integral to it.
Taxes a debt
Ancient Christian sources give five reasons for paying taxes:
First, to avoid giving offence. When Peter in Matthew 17:24 asked Jesus about paying the Temple poll tax, there followed a discussion to the effect that rulers collect taxes from people in general but never from their own sons, i.e. “the sons are exempt”. However, Christ instructed Peter to pay it anyway, “so that we may not offend them” (the collectors of the religious tax).
Second, taxes are a debt rather than one’s own property which a Christian can give or withhold at will. Origen considered taxes, revenues, etc., to constitute an account payable that Christians have no choice but to discharge. If we do not follow this commandment of the divine law to pay the tax in full, we despise the Word of God and remain in debt (On Prayer 28.1).
Third, remember Theophilus’ and Origen’s categorising payment of government taxes with other Christian traits and behaviours: payment allows us to “lead a quiet and peaceable life”. Origen’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans 9:29 (between AD 239 and 245) considered it part of Christians’ “living a quiet and tranquil life” and practising justice and piety.
The Commentary on Romans brings us to a fourth and purely practical reason to pay. Writing at a time when the church was intermittently persecuted by the state and when many Christians urged tolerance of it because Christians conscientiously obeyed the state except on the sole matter of worship, Origen in an exegesis of Romans 13:5-6 wrote Christian nonpayment of taxes and revenues would “deservedly” bring the government’s forces against them. Refusal to pay levies would constitute rebellion against the Roman Empire, depriving it of finances essential for its administration. Government officials would then be “justified persecutors” of Christians who would be plainly guilty of breaking a law that applied to all Roman subjects and which had nothing to do with religion.
Instead of persecution for their beliefs, the government would attack Christians for pure rebelliousness.
The fifth reason is that Christians are bound in conscience to obey their government in all things; the only exception is when it commands them to violate their religion, and then only to the extent that the governmental command infringes on it. The favourite proof-text is Romans 13:1-5:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.
Then follow verses 6 to 8, quoted near the beginning of this article.
This concept is summarised in concise, systematic order by bringing together Romans 13:1-5 and other Biblical passages in the subordinate standards of the Christian Reformed Churches. According to the Belgic Confession 36, “it is the bounden duty of every one, of whatever state, quality or condition he may be, to subject himself to the magistrates; to pay tribute, to show due honor and respect to them, and to obey them in all things which are not repugnant to the word of God”, while Lord’s Day 39 of the Heidelberg Catechism extends a Christian’s duties to his/her parents under the Fifth Commandment “to all in authority over me (and) to submit myself with due obedience ... and also bear patiently with their weaknesses and shortcomings”.
The Christian Reformed view is not just one possible interpretation of the Bible among many but was shared by the earliest church. For example, sometime between AD 198 and 220 the church father Tertullian in exegeting Matthew 22:17-21 wrote this about Christians:
as to what relates to the honours due to kings or emperors, we have a prescript sufficient, that it behoves us to be in all obedience, according to the apostle’s precept, “subject to magistrates, and princes and powers.On Idolatry 15
A former lawyer, Tertullian was a minister in what is now Tunisia.
Dishonest tax avoidance hurts others
A further reason against dishonest tax avoidance is that it cheats honest taxpayers. When the total tax revenues of a government decline, the rates go up to raise the same amount of money, with a disproportionately higher burden thrust onto honest taxpayers who report the full value of a transaction, benefit or property, and without dishonestly padding deductions. Because the dishonest paying less causes the honest to give up more of their money, such chicanery is well within “all wicked tricks and devices whereby we aim to appropriate our neighbour’s goods, whether by force or show of right ... or any other means forbidden by God” (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 42).
Another reason for Christians to pay the full amount of taxes is more relevant to twenty-first-century New Zealand than when Christians in ancient times were disenfranchised and persecuted by governments. In those days taxes were collected for despots who either had inherited the government or imposed it by force of arms, with taxpayers having no say in the matter. These despots often spent tax money to more efficiently oppress their people or on building projects that glorified themselves, again with taxpayers having no say in the matter. In New Zealand today it is the people, mostly taxpayers, who have the right to elect representatives to levy and spend taxes, and to vote them out of office if they think taxes too high or misspent. Because tax money is used how the people’s choices decide – and therefore usually for the voters’ good – the obligation to pay is logically and morally more binding now than in early Christian times.
On the other hand, a Christian need not comply with exaggerated demands from an overzealous tax collector that are not authorised by the taxing statutes or a court of law, nor need we forgo legitimate deductions. We are to give to Caesar only what is rightfully Caesar’s. This was put another way by Tertullian in discussing “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” when Tertullian rhetorically asked “what will be God’s, if all things are Caesar’s?” (On Idolatry 15). In Australia, excessive use of power by tax collectors can be appealed, and no tax is valid unless authorised by a parliament or legislature.
It is well known that Christ associated with tax collectors, but he also did so with prostitutes. His purpose was to seek and save the lost, not approve of their ways. Jesus was on a soul-saving mission like John the Baptist, who when asked by tax collectors what they should do as part of their repentance, replied “Don’t collect any more than you are required to” (Luke 3:13). Similarly, Jesus befriended the chief collector Zacchaeus, but pronounced salvation on him only when Zacchaeus said he amply reimbursed any taxpayers he overcharged (Luke 19:2-10).
In Sermons on Luke 23:5, Origen also taught that tax collectors must take no more than the law allows. The Didascalia, a church manual of the first third of the third century, classes “dishonest tax-gatherers” in the same category as thieves, forgers, usurers, extortionists, cheaters of the poor, “hypocritical lawyers”, and other reprobates.
Paraphrasing John the Baptist, Jesus and Tertullian, pay only what you owe but pay all you owe.